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NOCC: Basic Mold Making for Props and Special FX Make-Up

Company: Wizard World
Product: New Orleans Comic Con 2013 Coverage

When Jesse Shoemaker of NOLA Howling Productions began this panel on Basic Mold Making for Props and Special Effects Makeup, he asked the audience what topics they would like to talk about. The most popularly given answer was life-casting, the process of taking a mold of a person and, from it, creating a replica of that person to allow for masks and appliances to be sculpted on that person, for example on the face, without having to have that person sit still for the sculpting process for hours. Also, being able to create a replica of a person's face allows someone to sculpt appliances for their own faces as if they were working on someone else. So, life-casting was the first topic discussed. Another topic suggested was sculpting, to which Jesse said that of all the different aspects of special effects prop making, sculpting was probably his weakest point, but that he would point people in the right direction.

"Each step, everything that is done, is an art form in itself and of itself. There are professionals in the industry that do specific things, specifically life-casting, sculpting, molding, casting, painting, performing - every single one of those is its own art form and has its own tricks and techniques. There are those who excel in just one area and do those extremely well, then there are people who do everything okay or, you know, can do everything very well."
-Jesse Shoemaker, on the Art of Special Effects

When casting from molds, there are two types of molds: hard molds and soft molds. This is referring to the flexibility of the material. Hard molds are very rigid material, while soft molds can be flexed and deformed temporarily, but return to their original shape. Jesse explained that what type of mold you make should be determined by what type of material your finished product should be. Specifically, the "hardness" of the mold should be unlike that of the finished product. If the finished product is to be soft and flexible, such as a rubber-snake or tentacle, the mold should be made of a hard material. If the finished product is to be a hard material, such as a prop gun, then the mold should be soft and flexible. This is done to keep your piece from becoming stuck in your mold. If both the mold and the piece being made are made of a hard material, they can develop what's known as "mechanical locks," which keep them locked together. Think of a ball-joint. If the material of one piece wraps around the other piece such that a ball-joint is formed, there is no way to remove the two pieces from each other without damaging one of the pieces. And, generally, anytime you create a mold, you want to be able to make several pieces from that mold, so having to destroy your mold to get a single piece is a bad idea. If, however, your solid piece is in a flexible mold, you can stretch the mold as you remove it, unwrapping the part that forms a ball-joint with the mold, leaving both the piece and the mold unharmed. Soft molds with soft materials wouldn't have issues with mechanical locks, but can have problems with chemical bonding.

For life-casting, Jesse recommended two materials. The first is called alginate and the other is a product named Body Double, from a mold-making company named Smooth-On. When doing life-casting, Jesse warns that you should always have at least one other person helping you. While some people suggest that you should stick straws in the subject's nostrils and mouth, doing so deforms the shape of the face. When he does a life-cast, he has one person dedicated to staring up the subject's nose to ensure that the casting material isn't blocking their breathing passages. He says, "As long as they can see up my subject's nostrils, they can breathe. If they can't, well then, we have a problem. And that's their only job, is to make sure the subject can breath fine."

Alginate is made from seaweed and when you mix it with water, it will set to a sort of gelatin. Cold water will give you more working time, warm water will give you less working time. The same goes for ambient temperatures: cold air will give you more working time, warmer air will reduce your working time. Once you start applying the alginate, it goes on as sort of a slime, it will keep sliding down and sliding down and you have to keep putting it back up on the face. Eventually, it will start to thicken, at which point it becomes the consistency of cottage cheese and then, finally, it sets up. At that point, you will typically wait two or three minutes to let it finish setting up, then you have to go back over it with a "mother mold" - a hard mold that will keep the soft, flexible alginate from deforming and tearing when it's removed from the face. Since alginate is cheap and disposable, it stands to reason that you would want a cheap and disposable mother mold for it, so Jesse recommends plaster bandages. These can be purchased at most craft stores. Again, hot water will help the plaster bandages set up quickly. This can be done in about 5-10 minutes. After this time, you have the subject start flexing their face and making funny faces to loosen the mold from their face before you remove it.

Mind you, wet alginate doesn't stick to anything... not even dry alginate, so you can't simply build up your work in thin layers, you have to make it the thickness you're looking for the first time. Jesse did share that if you discover that your alginate is too thin after it's dried up a bit, you can sometimes save your work and add more alginate by first coating the first layer of dried alginate with a mixture of baking soda and water. This kind of etches into the existing alginate and provides a way for the new layer to mechanically lock to the old layer. You're looking for about a half-inch to an inch; anything thicker than that and you're wasting material. Once you have your alginate life-cast mold, you need to work with it quickly. Being a water-based product, alginate is constantly shrinking as the water evaporates. You can soak it in water to keep it from shrinking for a short period of time, but it's not something you would do overnight.

Once you have your alginate life-cast off, you have to quickly use your hard material to make your piece. Jesse showed off an example made of Ultracal, which is not available locally in Louisiana. He also suggested Hydracal and, finally, plaster of Paris if you have no other choice. Ultracal is superior in its surface detail. The example that Jesse passed around even showed the pores of the subject's face.

Alginate won't bind with facial hairs, but can seep into the hairs and lock them in place. The Body Double product supposedly has something in it that inhibits this, preventing the product from seeping into body hairs.

When building up a suit from a full-body life-cast, you can start by laying up sheets of foam rubber on the life-cast and add zippers so the person can get in, but what they really like to do is to sculpt the whole thing, to get much better detail. To do this you would use water clay, which is a clay that is light, cheap and readily available. You would then make a mold of these sculpted pieces. Jesse warns that if you use a stone mold product for an entire body, you could easily end up with a 200 pound mold, which can be very difficult to deal with, expensive to transport and generally not fun to deal with. He suggests using a fiberglass mold, which would be much lighter.

For appliances, Jesse suggested something called "Dragonskin" and showed a piece he had made with Dragonskin. He said that Dragonskin can be used for anything from prosthetics to whole animatronics. Dragonskin is used for several rides at Disney and Universal Studios. However, Jesse describes Dragonskin as being a "diva" - it requires fairly strict conditions to set-up in and the presence of trace amounts of silicon or alcohol will prevent it from setting up at all. So, if you make a mold and use it with Dragonskin, you'll want to keep that mold away from other materials and only use it with Dragonskin.

One thing that prop making can facilitate is creating a light-weight version of something. One client of Jesse's had a Predator costume that he would cos-play with. To accompany this costume, he purchased a replica spear from Master Replicas. It looked awesome, but weighed ten pounds - a bit heavy to tote around for hours on end. He went to Jesse and had him cast a lightweight version that was foam-filled, with a light-weight interior and the final result was a much more reasonable two pounds.

Most materials should be stored indoors at normal room temperature. Don't store them in direct sunlight or in a refrigerator. Also, you don't want to store materials for over six months.

Jesse suggests keeping a log of everything you attempt. What piece were you doing, how much did you use, anything unusual about environmental conditions, how the piece came out... keeping track of this information helps you identify what went wrong and keeps you from making the same mistakes.

Jesse recommended Smooth-On products, explaining that they're generally easy to work with, partially because most of their products are an easy one-to-one mixture by volume. Other products from other places may be one-to-one mixtures by weight, for example, which can be more difficult to measure.

Timing is very important when it comes to mixing up the materials. There are basically two different time ranges to be aware of. The first is called "pot life" and this refers to the amount of time that can be spent mixing the parts together. This is how much time you have before the material starts gelling and you can't move it around anymore. That time starts when you start pouring one material into the other. That's when the clock starts ticking. Depending on your products, this time can be as little as 30-45 seconds or as long as an hour and a half. The end of the pot life to the de-mold time is how long it takes for it to completely cure. After the de-mold time is when you can pull it out of your mold. If after that time your product is still not set-up, that's when you have to start questioning yourself as to what you might have done wrong.

Someone asked about adding hair to masks. Jesse explains that when you see awesome looking creatures with hair, that this hair is applied in a tedious process called punching, where each strand of hair is punched through the material. He again stressed that there are various aspects of special effects that someone can be an expert and that, yes, there are professionals who do nothing but punch hair for these sorts of projects. For facial hair, you can glue down a beard, for example, then glue down some loose hair around the edges to help hide the edges.

The subject of 3D printing came up. Jesse explained that 3D printers are great... and horrible at the same time. They can print highly detailed models out from computer models, allowing you to utilize 3D sculpting programs to design the model and then print small items out at a relatively low cost. However, 3D printers are extremely slow when compared to making reproductions with molds. A single 4-5 inch item can take hours to print; in an hour, you can make up to two dozen casts. So, the best use of a 3D printer would be to print the original item, then make a mold from it and cast any additional copies of the item you require.

Jesse shared an experience he had back when he used to work for a Smooth-On distributor. In order to show the importance of mixing the proper quantities, his boss conducted a demonstration where they took a wooden box about one cubic foot in size, with fiberglass reinforcement and held together with four-inch bolts, then filled the box with expanding foam and quickly shut it and left it in the middle of the parking lot. It literally exploded, throwing shrapnel everywhere. If you don't leave enough room for the foam to expand, you can easily destroy your mold.

If you really want to try your hand at mold making, Jesse suggests delving into the wide variety of tutorial videos on YouTube. There are a series of videos by a sculptor named Mark Alfrey that Jesse highly recommended. He also mentioned that Smooth-On has a line of how-to videos that are on YouTube or available for purchase on DVD. He warns, however, that since Smooth-On sells products, they tend to suggest the use of more material than you really need, in his opinion. He says that anyone who's interested should watch and read anything they can get your hands on, from YouTube how-to videos to books and forums. His teacher always said that there was no such thing as bad information. Jesse didn't know if he completely agreed with that statement, but pointed out that if you consider that you're seeing the results of people's processes when you're watching how-to videos, you can decide for yourself whether what you've just watched is something you want to do or something not to do, so in that light, it's true that no information is bad information. Also, if you have a project for Jesse, he can be reached via his Facebook page (link below).

-Geck0, GameVortex Communications
AKA Robert Perkins

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